Op-Ed written by Ariel Taylor Smith of Transform Education Now.

A letter to the next superintendent of Denver Public Schools:

Be brave enough to demand results for kids.

Families across this city demand meaningful, measurable results — our kids’ future is at stake.

“Will our children be prepared for a life of opportunity?” This is the question that has resurfaced over and over again with Denver families during the past year of remote learning. Over the past eighteen months, Transform Education Now has made thousands of calls to families. On those calls, we check to make sure that the family we are speaking with has everything they need to support their child — we connect them to meal programs, ensure they have wi-fi and computer access, and then generally check on how remote learning is going in their house. No surprise: Most often, families reported that their student was receiving significantly fewer opportunities for learning, and they are worried about their child’s future. In fact, in our winter 2020 survey that included 650 parents, half reported that their student was not ready to move on to the next grade level.

Read more of Ariel’s Op Ed in Westword here.

Middle school students from the American Indian Academy of Denver visited the site of the Hayman fire earlier this spring to study the affects of wildfire on the environment. Through their STEAM curriculum in class, students were able to study the physical components surrounding wildfire management including weather, erosion and geology, but what makes this school so special is the infusion of indigenous practices in their learning.

A clear example of how ancestral Indigenous views have relevance today is Indigenous knowledge and practices about wildfire.

“Back when Indigenous people were on their land, they practiced controlled burning,” explained eighth-grader Rose Leyba.

Native peoples set up a perimeter and burned within it, clearing out underbrush. New plants would grow back and replenish the forest, she said. When white settlers arrived, Leyba said they brought a different philosophy on fire.

“It had a different meaning than it does for the Indigenous people,” she said, such as using the science of fire for weapons or burning things that weren’t medicine.

And the modern view on wildfires? Suppress them at all costs. Without the periodic fires, the forest lost an important control mechanism. The forest in the Hayman fire was unnaturally dense, adding fuel to an already dangerous situation. To better understand fire in Colorado, the students studied wildfires around the world — and how Indigenous views on wildfire are starting to influence fire management strategies in places like Australia and California.

Listen to Colorado Public Radio’s Jenny Brundin as she traveled along with the class here.

Photo credit: Eli Imadali, CPR News

Early conversations with Denver Public Schools parents and students participating in a research initiative point to the importance of individualized attention, regular communication, rigorous coursework, and strong mental health support as key elements of a high quality education.

The PEACE Collective (a coalition composed of Transform Education Now, FaithBridge, YAASPA, and various community members) and RootED Denver have teamed up with Drs. Brenda Allen, Sharon Bailey, Antwan Jefferson, Janiece Mackey, Jesús Rodríguez and Maria Salazar to conduct the community research. The research – expected to be finalized and released this summer – seeks to understand how Black, Brown, & Indigenous families and students in DPS conceptualize quality and equity in education.

Individuals in the community who have first-hand experience with DPS are participating in small-group virtual meetings.  The overarching questions being asked of the participants are: What is the district doing to help you (or your student) succeed? And what should the district be doing?

Read more from student, Stacy Amidou (pictured), and other community members in Boardhawk’s coverage of the research project here!

TeRay Esquibel, RootED’s Partner for Community Partnership and Advocacy, is inspiring change with a new organization, Ednium: The Alumni Collective. TeRay will leave RootED February 1st to lead Ednium.

A RootED grantee, Ednium is a team of Denver Public Schools alumni that provides programs aiming to reinvent education, give leadership training to young alums, and develop new advocacy initiatives.
Participants in Ednium’s programs have identified new district priorities, including broader definitions of student success and a greater emphasis on equity and representation. They are also advocating for ethnic studies and financial literacy courses to become graduation requirements for the district’s students.
“This is reinvesting in the brilliance in our backyard,” Esquibel told Chalkbeat this month. “This is mobilizing the brilliance to be the powerful force for change that we claim we want them to be.”


Read Chalkbeat’s coverage of Ednium here!

Community Identifies Need

Research has shown that students who share the same background as educators, receive more effective role modeling, higher expectations for learning and their future, and have fewer cultural differences. The community’s been calling for an increase the number of effective, diverse and representative leaders across public schools in Denver.

Partner Response

Following an extensive nationwide search, the KIPP Colorado Board of Directors selected Tomi Amos as its new KIPP Colorado CEO. Previously, Tomi served as Executive Director for the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone (NDIZ).

Impact

Tomi’s appointment is historic for Denver: she is the first leader of color of a charter network here, and her ascendance is an inspiration to so many who’ve struggled for generations to improve equitable outcomes in our public schools.  She said, “I have prided myself on working in communities with high populations of English Language Learners, and making sure their identities are affirmed. It’s not acceptable to me to pursue a path where our kids are not celebrating their culture and their heritage and their language in the same way they can learn a new language.”   Tomi was featured on 9News, New CEO for KIPP Colorado Schools makes sure students have equal access to virtual learning.

Community Identifies Need

Communities of color remain disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and the economic downturn. 

Partner Response

Thanks to a community-specific grant from RootED and savings from hosting its annual staff conference remotely, DSST Public Schools were able to support a handful of local businesses owned by people of color.

Impact

More than 800 DSST Public Schools teachers and staff received $40 each in gift cards to businesses owned by people of color. See story on 9News:  DSST Public Schools Gives Back to the Community

Community Identitfies Need

Denver families learned this spring that DPS would face dramatic budget cuts due to the plunge in sales tax, income tax and other revenue streams brought on by the COVID 19 pandemic. Community leaders raised concerns the impact of the pandemic and looming cuts would disproportionately affect students of color, and those whose families earn low incomes.

Partner Response

RootED co-sponsored a series of webinars on school district budget decision making. The discussions covered how school board members could navigate the development of effective school district budgets. In this video, Denver community members shared insights on what they wanted school leaders to keep top of mind as they developed the 2020-2021 budget.

A coalition of education advocate organizations held a press conference June 28 to discuss strategies the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Board of Education should consider before making cuts to the budget.  The school district was facing a budget shortfall of $65 million. A critical message the advocates delivered is that the adopted budget should not exacerbate long-standing inequities in the system, or use stop-gap measures that will ultimately hurt students in the long-term. It must prioritize the educational outcomes for students of color, students with special needs and those who come from low income households.

Impact

The message was livestreamed on 9News and covered on CBS4 and Fox31.

Community Identifies Need

Color-coding school quality based on academic measures had mixed results over the past two decades in Denver.  The School Performance Framework (SPF) has held schools accountable for student academic performance and growth since 2008, predating the state SPF.

It changed over time with shifting assessments and feedback from school leaders and community members. Importantly, many families found the color-coding was not reflective of their values and presented unintended consequences for children’s development (when schools were labeled ‘failing’.)  Last year, DPS began an effort to reevaluate the accountability framework and convened the Reimagine the SPF committee.

Partner Response

RootED commissioned a study with the Denver Journal for Education and Community to look at the ways Denver Public School (DPS) families make decisions about their children’s education and options for schooling. The researchers – Drs. Antwan Jefferson and Plashan McCune – were interested in knowing whether the information provided to parents by DPS included what families consider valuable or important to their decision-making. 

As the Board of Education prepared to deliberate on recommended changes to the School Performance Framework (SPF), the research was helpful for understanding more broadly the guidance that is useful to families, including, but not limited to, the SPF.

Impact 

The report found that families rely upon a range of information sources for school choice, including from the district and individual schools but also from personal experience and their community. The research also found families find the information DPS provides is wanting. Families want to know more. What is the school like?  How does it work? And how does it reflect our community context?
RootED will support the district implementation of the Reimagine SPF Committee’s recommendations numbers 2 and 3, to design a dashboard providing this information and to focus on accountability for continuous improvement around academics, whole child and school culture and climate. Read more about RootED’s key takeaways from the DJEC study here.

Community Identifies Need

Recent demonstrations against police brutality have brought attention to the implicit bias and systemic racism in many of the institutions in our country. Young people who want to change deficit narratives about people of color need support in order to redefine the standards that have been placed upon them.

Partner Response

Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism (YAASPA) endeavors to build the self-efficacy of youth who desire to make change in our communities, pursue social science degrees, and social justice careers.  The organization encourages and supports disengaged and underserved youth to participate in their communities socially and politically, in order to make changes within the community. YAASPA works with middle school through college students to support them to be civically engaged in community and career, to build their academic and career efficacy, civic literacy and racial identity.

Impact

A core group of students has participated in YAASPA for much of their teenage years and learned a lot about advocacy and how to effect change. They have made lasting change on issues such as transit equity and concurrent enrollment.  Learn more about YAASPA via their website, and this video.

Community Identifies Need

A 2014 report by the Colorado Department of Higher Education found that the remediation rate for African American students at the state’s four-year institutions was 55.2% compared to remediation rates for whites of 18.5%. 

Partner Response

FaithBridge founders grew up in Denver and appreciate the power of churches to mobilize for change.  Their website states, “When we operate as a collective, we are positioned to shift the paradigm of possibilities expeditiously for every child.” The strength of FaithBridge flows from the ability of the Faith community to unite around a single cause, with a single focus and a single voice—to ensure every child in Denver can get a high-quality education without restrictions or limitations of any kind.

Impact

FaithBridge is rising as a prominent voice for children, advocating to unleash the brilliance in every child, insisting that young people must be heard as they articulate their desires for better.  See the FaithBridge mission video here, and work to support families during the pandemic here.  FaithBridge has also worked to support school leaders in their efforts to lift up students and their accomplishments, despite the challenges of the pandemic.  See coverage of the extraordinary graduation ceremony for the Noel Community Arts School Class of 2020 on CBS4 School & Principal Rally Around Graduating Class and 9News School Gets Creative to Celebrate Grads.